By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006
President Bush summoned most of the living former secretaries of state and defense to the White House yesterday for what participants described as a cordial but pointed discussion about the future of Iraq.
The bipartisan advice-seeking was virtually unprecedented for this White House, which has drawn criticism even from Republicans for being insular in its deliberations and dismissive of dissenters.
The session in the Roosevelt Room came complete with a photo opportunity and presidential statement after Bush spent an hour with such prominent foreign policy voices as Robert S. McNamara, a Democratic secretary of defense during the Vietnam era 40 years ago, and James A. Baker III, the secretary of state for Bush's father during the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s.
While the president was challenged once or twice in the meeting, according to participants, White House aides believed they accomplished their twin goals of portraying a more solicitous president and underscoring the broad bipartisan agreement that a speedy withdrawal from Iraq would be unwise and potentially devastating to U.S. interests.
"Not everybody around this table agreed with my decision to go into Iraq," Bush said of the 13 former Cabinet members who attended. "I fully understand that."
It was a rare event for Bush, inviting and listening to sharp critics of his Iraq policy, including Madeleine K. Albright, President Bill Clinton's secretary of state.
Harold Brown, defense secretary for President Jimmy Carter, said the meeting was clearly designed to provide a public relations boost to Bush and show that "there is a fairly broad consensus" that "we have to try make it work as far as we can." That happens to be true, he said.
Albright, who advised Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry in 2004, said a few participants complained that it took Bush five years to bring together Democratic and Republican foreign policy luminaries. "This all should have happened a lot earlier," Albright said in an interview.
Since the earliest days of the debate over invading Iraq, Bush has been criticized for ignoring those who do not share his views and relying on a small band of like-minded, pro-war advisers. But in recent weeks, in response to falling poll numbers and rising complaints about the course of the war, Bush has reached out through meetings and public acknowledgments that things have sometimes not gone as well as he hoped. Albright and Brown praised Bush for the effort.
Albright was among the most aggressive in challenging Bush in the private meeting, complaining about the president's characterization of the conflict as unavoidable.
"I feel very strongly it is wrong to say something publicly critical of the president and then don't say it to his face," she said. "I said this was a war of choice, not necessity. But getting it right is a necessity and not a choice."
Brown said he pressed Bush and his advisers on the prospects of creating a broad-based democratic government that a vast majority of Iraqis, regardless of religious or tribal allegiances, can support.
Afterward, Brown said in an interview that he is skeptical about the prospects of success in Iraq. "I can think of more ways for it to come out badly than for it come out well," he said. "But that does not mean it cannot come out acceptably."
Former senator William S. Cohen (R-Maine), who ran the Pentagon under Clinton, said he grilled Bush about a recent Washington Post report on a lack of Sunni participation in the Iraq military. Bush, Cohen said in an interview, vowed to monitor the situation and "make sure there was competence" among the ethnic groups in the Iraqi military.
Cohen, like the others, described the president as pleasantly engaging and at times feisty.
As the meeting took place, reports from Iraq were describing one of the bloodiest days since the U.S.-led invasion, with more than 130 people killed in attacks.
But Bush, much as he does in public speeches, told the former Cabinet secretaries that Iraqis are optimistic about creating a free government and building a military that can withstand insurgents and other threats without U.S. assistance.
Presidential aides distributed a briefing sheet to the former secretaries describing progress in Iraq. Bush frequently turned to Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander there, and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to answer questions about troop levels and training, participants said.
In an unusual scene, they said, the former government executives frequently interrupted each other and the White House officials because, as Albright explained, they all ran Cabinet departments and were used to running the show. Except for a few sharp comments, the discussions were described as civil and detailed.
"When you are in the presence of the president of the United States, I don't care if you've been a devout Democrat for the last hundred years, you're likely to pull your punches to some degree," Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, told reporters.
The current President Bush has never invited such a large group of former Cabinet secretaries to the White House, but Ronald Reagan did so to discuss the sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981 and Carter did so to discuss the Soviet combat brigade in Cuba in the late '70s.
James R. Schlesinger, secretary of defense under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, said Bush essentially cut off the debate over the Iraq invasion by encouraging a discussion about the future, not the past. "Needless to say," Schlesinger said, there was "little debate given the implied ground rules."
Some participants said they had little to debate with Bush. "I think the president has taken the absolutely correct position, contrary to a number of Washington politicians," Alexander M. Haig Jr., secretary of state for President Reagan, told reporters.
Added Eagleburger: "Every time we talk about withdrawal you can see the ears of Osama [bin Laden] and his friends perking up."
Still, it was a sense of the span of history in the room -- as much as the future of Iraq -- that left a lasting impression for many in attendance. "It was a sense that when we walked into the room and you see the personalities as far back as McNamara . . . that it was a good feeling among people who have shouldered considerable responsibility in the past and understand what this administration now confronts," Cohen said.